Why it Works: Writing Lessons from "Jaws" (45 Years Later)
Updated: May 20, 2020
It’s hard to believe that Jaws, the movie that pioneered the summer blockbuster and subsequently ruined beach vacations for a generation of moviegoers, premiered 45-years ago this summer!
No, I am not old enough to have seen Jaws in theaters, but growing up, Jaws was one of those movies that terrified and captivated me all at once. It blurred the line between horror movie and ocean adventure, and certain scenes, with the ominous “dun dun” playing in the background, haunted my dreams and trips to the swimming pool for years.
In my fear and fascination, though, I was also hooked, harpooned, and head-over-heels in love with the mystery, adventure, and horror of Jaws, and still am to this day.
But beyond the sights, sounds, screams, and spectacle, the film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel has also become an incredible workshop on story structure and character motivation.
So in celebration of the 45th anniversary of Jaws, a few months early, here are 7 writing lessons learned from Jaws that have inspired my writing over the years and made us all think twice before going back into the water.
“Get Out of the Water”
Fear is a Powerful Motivator
There are a few major differences between Peter Benchley’s original novel and Steven Spielberg’s cinematic marvel, but the one thing that stays the same is the story’s treatment of primal fear. This is what made the novel a national bestseller and the movie such a smash hit!
At its core, Jaws deals with two kinds of fear. The fear of physical violence and menace, and our fear of the unknown. And it is often the things we don’t see that terrify us more than the things we do.
Those who know the history of Jaws know, though, that the decision to not show the shark was a byproduct of the giant mechanical shark (affectionately named Bruce) not working for most of the production. Spielberg and his editor Verna Fields had to get creative, and the decision to withhold the shark’s reveal ended up being the solution that made Jaws a more terrifying and, dare I say, better film overall.
Like a true ghost story, Jaws only allows us to witness the impact and aftermath of the monster’s malice, but never the monster itself, not until much later in the film. But just knowing that there’s a man-eating shark in the water, somewhere, is cause for concern.
Hiding the beast amplifies his power and mystique. After all, the wizard will always have more power behind his curtain. The shark will always have more power hidden below the surface. Jaws just keeps the curtain closed a little bit longer than most, letting our fear build until the storyteller is ready to expose his monster. And when he does, the real monster lives up to its horror.
Just ask Alfred Hitchcock about the impact of suspense and the unbridled power of the imagination. Rear Window is the perfect example.
“You’ve Got City Hands, Mr. Hooper”
Conflict Comes in Layers (or Waves)
The main conflict of Jaws is obviously between our heroes and the great white shark. Man vs. Beast. But each main character has a different relationship with the story’s monster and a different view of how to handle it.
Brody (Roy Scheider) is terrified of the shark but wants to get rid of it however he can. Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is intrigued and in love with sharks. Quint (Robert Shaw) lives to hunt and kill them. The Mayor (Murray Hamilton) wants to dismiss the problem and preserve the town’s summer income. And Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) just wants to protect her children and family.
Motivations are fully believable and fully fleshed out, but the beauty of this story is that varying human perspectives, like their characters, are allowed to clash. It’s man vs. beast at heart, but man vs. man on the surface.
Brody and Mayor Vaughn disagree on what to do about Amity’s beaches.
Brody and his wife clash over how much to shelter and protect their children.
Hooper and Quint definitely butt heads over how to capture/kill the shark. Who are we kidding? They butt heads on everything!
Having a powerful central conflict is wonderful. What’s even better is letting different characters, personalities, and world views collide. This is what makes a movie like The Avengers so similarly entertaining.
Just because your heroes have a common goal doesn’t mean they have the same plan or means of achieving it. Sometimes the clash of titans, and the heroes and personalities we admire is far more interesting… and relatable!
“My Kids Were on that Beach Too”
Make it Personal
Chief Brody is an interesting character in that he is driven to protect the citizens of Amity as its chief of police but also his family as a father. Each shark attack threatens Brody and challenges his goals in a unique way.
The first attack (Crissie Watkins) is an attack on an outsider visiting Amity Island on summer break. While the threat is real, there’s also uncertainty surrounding it. Boating accident? Shark attack? No one really knows (or wants to admit) what actually happened, and the conflict regarding the appropriate response is just as muddled. And when her body is discovered, the only person left to mourn is a solemn boyfriend, who barely knew her.
The second attack (Alex Kintner) is an attack on a little boy that could have been prevented. In failing to follow his instincts and close the beaches, a boy under Brody’s watch is killed. Brody fails in his sworn duty to protect and serve the citizens of Amity. And the aftermath of this attack is our hero’s guilt and a mother’s grief. For Brody (and the audience), this one hits much closer to home.
And then we get to the third attack, the one in the estuary. While we have no relationship with the man who is actually killed, this attack directly involves Brody’s oldest son, who was inches away from the shark and could have easily been the third victim. As a result, Brody’s son ends up in the hospital, in shock by what he has just experienced. For Brody, it just got personal.
With each attack, the shark moves closer and closer to the things Brody cares about most.
The lesson here is that sometimes core fears are just as powerful, if not more powerful, than core values. And what a character fears or fears to lose most will often drive their actions towards or away from a certain goal.
How badly do they want what they want? How far are the willing to go to get it or keep it?
As a writer, your job is to test them and find out, which Peter Benchley and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb do without hesitation.
With the safety of Amity and his family on the line, Brody is begrudgingly willing to do what he’d never thought he’d do before: get on a boat and travel out to sea.
“Farewell and Adieu to You Fair Spanish Ladies”
The Midpoint Shouldn’t Sink Your Ship
Midpoints are tricky. This is the point in the script where you either have to up the stakes or take the story in a new direction. Or both.
With Jaws, the stakes are raised when Brody’s son becomes a victim. At this point, the threat can no longer be ignored, hidden from, or defended.
It’s time for our heroes to go on the offensive.
This is why, at exactly the midway point of the script, Brody, Hooper, and Quint set off on a quest to slay the figurative dragon. They leave the comforts and safety of home behind and venture into the shark’s world to exact a bit of revenge.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know this is also the point where the tone of the movie takes a noticeable turn. Where the first half of the movie had the look and feel of a horror movie, the second half becomes a swashbuckling high seas adventure in the vein of Moby Dick or Treasure Island. Like the characters, we actually get to have some fun, and it helps that we have John Williams’ music steering the ship.
At the midpoint, the game has changed. The stakes have been raised, the conflict has boiled over, and things have gotten personal. The characters must change tactics from a more defensive strategy (flight) to an outright attack (fight).
“I’ll Never Put on a Life Jacket Again”
Savor Your Speeches
It’s impossible to talk about the writing of Jaws and not mention the famous Indianapolis speech. I personally hate writing speeches in my scripts and try and avoid character monologuing whenever I can, but the Indianapolis speech of Jawsis one that’s hard to ignore.
So what does the Indianapolis speech teach us?
Speeches should be both character and plot driven
In Quint’s speech, we learn why the salty old captain of the Orca hates sharks from his story as a survivor of the famous USS Indianapolis. His speech, which is both haunting and tragic, serves as both backstory and motivation for that character. If Quint only shared the story of the Indianapolis, that would be one thing, but sharing his personal experience with it peels back another layer to the character.
It explains his personality, perspective, and purpose. It also offers a bit of foreshadowing of the possible fate of our favorite shark hunter. “I’ll never put on a life jacket again,” Quint says. That’s a line that almost promises Quint will be forced reconcile with his promise and his past. Quint has tried to hunt and kill his past. Maybe his past will finally catch up to him and make him the prey once again.
Speeches should expand upon existing themes
The Indianapolis speech also reminds us that the fun and games of this sequence (the characters getting drunk and swapping scar stories) won’t last forever. There’s still a shark out there, and the characters have invaded his domain. The horror is far from over.
With the Indianapolis speech, Quint single-handedly proves that, while thisshark may be an aberration, sharks attacking humans is nothing new. On the ocean, even the strongest, most capable human is at the mercy of the monsters of the deep. Humans aren’t at the top of the food chain. They aren’t in control. They’re vulnerable. This realization adds a new layer of meaning to the themes already discussed in this movie. And though our characters have won a small victory in the barrel chase, it’s only a matter of time before the shark returns to reassert his dominance.
“You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”
No Easy Ways Out!
This is the big one, the quote everyone knows, even if they haven’t seen the movie. It’s also one of the most iconic quotes in movie history.
Having just seen the massive great white shark in all his glory and terror for the first time, a pallid Chief Brody retreats into the cabin of the Orca to tell Quint, “you’re gonna need a bigger boat.” It’s the line that perfectly captures Brody’s fear and perspective when facing an obstacle bigger or more daunting than he thinks he can handle.
Sorry, Brody. It’s not gonna be that easy. And that’s the point.
A good writer will never offer his characters an easy way out. Steven Spielberg was adamant that he wanted the audience to feel like we were really out to sea with these characters. If we could see land in the distance, the tension would be broken because we’d identify a way out if things got too scary. Here, that’s not the case.
These characters got themselves into trouble (Quint doesn’t help much in that department), so they need to see themselves out of it with the tools they have at their disposal. There’s no bigger boat or eagles coming to save them from this evil. They’re truly on their own, and that’s where we want them.
“I Used to Hate the Water”
The Hero Triumphant
When we get to the climax of Jaws, the focus shifts back to Brody, who is, after all, the hero of this story. With Hooper gone and Quint dead, Brody is left to fend for himself on a sinking ship with an angry twenty-five-foot shark chomping at the bit.
If you know me, you know that I am a firm believer in making characters face their fears and conquer their inner demons over the course of the story. They may lose, and the road to victory should never be an easy one, but in the end, we want to see the hero defeat the monsters in their life. And with Jaws, Brody does this in more ways than one.
Throughout the movie we’ve learned that Brody hates the water and is terrified of the ocean. How ironic that a character who hates the water has to venture out to sea to confront the monster who threatens his world.
And in the finale of Jaws, as the Orca disappears below him, Brody is lowered into the water for the first time with nothing but a rifle and single shot at the scuba tank in the shark’s mouth. Miss and his worst fears are realized. Here, Brody must face his fears head on. And in the style of great heroic mythology, our hero slays the dragon and saves the day, conquering his inner demons in the process. And what an explosive ending it is!
Anyway, that’s all for now. If you love Jaws as much as I do, let me know. I’d love to hear your thoughts and maybe a favorite scar story or two.
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Until Today, Storytellers